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A Kewanee middle school class is documenting history through an art film

Nelson Tuskegee Filming
Marc Nelson
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Some of Marc Nelson's students at Central Junior High School in Kewanee assemble the apparatus to film a flying scene in their film "Harold Brown: American Hero."

An art teacher at Central Junior High School in Kewanee is teaching his class history, while helping them create something truly unique and he’s creating a few young stars in the process.

Marc Nelson’s 7th and 8th grade art students are making movies. He started teaching in Kewanee 15 years ago and started the movie projects in 2019, with a break for a year due to COVID. He lets his students decide the topic and in 2021 there were two things on his class’ minds: World War II and Coronavirus. Nelson says he plugged those search terms into Google to help find some ideas.

“So I looked up ‘Tuskegee Airmen COVID’ and I found a picture of our main character, Harold Brown,” said Nelson. “A 98-year-old veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen getting a COVID vaccine. I thought ‘this guy seems interesting’ and I discovered he had written a book with his wife about his life before, during and after World War II.”

Nelson sent an email to Brown’s wife, along with some examples of his class’ past work, and received a response within an hour.

“They were really excited and were really interested and that was a huge honor for my students and I to be able to do this,” he said. “Because that gave us the green light and from there it was filming for several months.”

Filming was a lengthy and involved process. There’s a variety of mediums in the film: everything from green screens, to 3D animation, to painstaking stop motion animation using clay figures sculpted by students.

Eighth grader Kolbie Cernovich was one of the students who helped track continuity, making sure sculpted figures were in all the same spots from frame to frame.

“It was pretty hard, because they kept falling and we had to make sure we knew where they were before so we could make it look like it was smooth,” she said. “But it was actually really enjoyable to do.”

Natalia Bond is one of the students who actually sculpted the characters.

“Being able to create the people was pretty fun,” she said. “And I got better at it, as we continued to do it.”

All the students said they enjoyed sculpting and shooting the movie. As Nelson points out, stop-motion can be a slow, time-consuming process, but it's also rewarding.

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Marc Nelson
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Art students gather around to film scenes for "Harold Brown: American Hero" in Marc Nelson's art classroom at Central Junior High School in Kewanee.

“The fact that they’re taking ordinary things like cardboard and aluminum foil and turning it into these sets and these characters is kind of a magical process,” he said. “I think it really works well with students this age.”

The film follows Brown's entire life and the period set during World War 2 includes some dog fighting scenes. To accomplish this, Nelson uses a combination of model planes, green screens, and a 3D animation app.

Nolie Charlet is one of the students who helped film the aerial battles.

“It was really difficult at first because we couldn’t find a way to get the airplanes in the air without it looking…cheesy in a way,” she said. “So Mr. Nelson had to figure it out and we all had to brainstorm with, like, this little string that held it up.”

Of course, a silent dog fight isn't going to feel particularly realistic. So Nelson and the students turned to the Internet for some assistance with the sound design.

“YouTube has a wonderful collection of that, and also video games,” said Nelson. “A lot of video games kids play have a lot of, you know, for certain artillery or plane turbines. There’s several flight simulators I used where I’d record off the flight simulators because they had the exact model of the plane.”

In making a film, or pulling sound from a video game, Nelson hopes his students take away some context and foster interest in the creation of media that they consume on a daily basis.

“That’s another thing the kids see is that video game design is a huge art form that they enjoy all the time,” said Nelson. “That’s the thing about movies too. They consume movies all the time, but I wanted them to be a producer of these things, not just a consumer. You know what I mean?”

Then there's the COVID angle of the movie. Nelson says the film uses a "Princess Bride"-inspired story structure, where a mother and son kept apart by COVID read Brown's life story over Zoom. Student Macy Anderson says this story structure tied the history to something students could relate to.

“I liked it a lot since we were really able to relate to it, because there are families that can’t see their parents everyday,” she said. “I’m glad we were able to include that into the movie.”

8th Grader Damien Taylor plays the star role, the son Josh, who also reads the majority of the book and provides narration. Nelson says the script is about twenty pages long and the total runtime of the movie is close to 40 minutes. It’s a lot of dialogue for anyone to record, but Taylor got it all done in two 45 minute sessions.

“My teacher, Marc Nelson, said I did really good reading,” Taylor said. “And I know I’m a good reader but he said I did excellent.”

Taylor, like most of Nelson’s students, only knew a little or nothing at all about the Tuskegee Airmen before working on the project. But through making the film, Taylor and the others became very aware of the airmen’s lives and their role as the first Black flying squadron.

“They were a little plane group that helped defend the Nazis from destroying the bomb carriers,” said Taylor. “That was basically it.”

Nelson says it’s important to use art as a medium to expose his students to history they might not have learned about before.

“When you’re immersed in a subject like this, it’s much more indelible. I mean, you really get into the story, you get into the characters and that’s what I wanted for my kids,” he said. “I wanted these stories in particular because I wasn’t sure they were going to hear them and I really wanted them to be aware of them.”

Ultimately, Nelson hopes the stories he helps students tell through film will improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

“I feel like if we are able to see and reflect on history, they can make more of an impact as they grow up and make more of a positive impact on the world,” he said. “That’s maybe pie-in-the-sky, but the idea is teaching is a really hopeful act that you can maybe improve society as it goes.”

The production process is a long one that takes a whole summer and a chunk of the next year. After Nelson and his class wrap shooting, he gets to work editing. He says sometimes it means 16 hour weekends, but the films are a labor of love.

“I think, you know, if you can get a student to be working on something, putting their hand into it, putting their emotions into it, they will connect more to a story,” said Nelson. “I think art is a great venue for that.”

Taylor hopes everyone who sees the movie he made with his class comes away with a lesson about the Airmen.

“It was history that they made helping people that didn’t even want their help,” he said. “Even though they were little they did a lot of things that made them big.”

A lesson that all of Nelson’s students can carry along with them, as well.

As of Monday, the full film "Harold Brown: American Hero" is available on YouTube here.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.